Black History Month Q&A with Heinley Gaspard

February is Black History Month, an annual celebration of Black and African Americans’ accomplishments and a time for appreciating their critical contributions to U.S. history. To mark the occasion, we are featuring some of our Black and African American employees at Sema4. In the final Q&A of our series, Heinley Gaspard, Pre-Analytical Operations Manager in our Stamford lab, talks about the role models who shaped his path and why kids need to see people who look and act like them in scientific leadership roles. Read the previous installments of this series by clicking here and here.

  • 1. What is your role at Sema4?
  • I am the Clinical Manager of Pre-Analytical Operations. One of the main techniques we use to detect variations in DNA is the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). I manage all things pre-PCR, so everything from when the sample enters the lab for DNA extraction until we hand over the DNA in the form of a PCR plate for downstream assays.

  • 2. What motivates you to work at Sema4?
  • I’m somebody who needs to have a purpose that is bigger than me. We all have those days where the commute is too long, or breakfast was cold, and it’s just hard to be outside of ourselves. And, in those moments, I think about the expectant mother who is reliant upon Sema4 to make a very crucial decision. I realize that I’m part of that decision, even if that person will never meet me. It’s a wonderful thing to be surrounded by people who have that same mentality. It reminds us of what it is we’re doing, not just as a company but also on the individual level.

  • 3. What does Black History Month mean to you?
  • It is definitely personal. I am the son of Haitian immigrants who came over to the U.S. in the late-‘60s to mid-‘70s. I grew up having a dual identity in the sense that my elders did not have the same struggle with their civil and human rights as many African American individuals did. Still, just about every aspect of my life has been heavily affected by the fact that I’m Black. Looking at Black history allows me to see where I’ve come from, socioeconomically and politically, and the path that lies ahead of me. As for the month, while I’m excited that it exists, I pretty much celebrate “Black History” all year. It’s a start, but it’s almost like only celebrating someone on their birthday instead of being happy to see them every day!

  • 4. Can you tell us about a role model who has inspired you?
  • My first role models were the men in my family and also professional Black athletes. These athletes provided me with an opportunity to see people that look and act like me be themselves and be successful and respected. Later in my life, I worked with a successful manager who personified what I wanted to be. He did not shy away from his blackness and seeing that helped me understand that I didn’t have to shy away from who I was either. I could walk into a room as myself, and, granted, I’m going to face certain things because of the color of my skin, but I would face those anyway, so I should just be comfortable with who I am.

  • 5. What barriers have you had to overcome to reach this point in your career?
  • It wasn’t until college that I experienced racism firsthand in the form of exclusion when I found myself almost forced to study with only other Black students. We felt as if we were being ignored and didn’t have the same information as the other students. Because I’m a positive person, I thought that it was just maybe that one experience, but I experienced it again during my working life (not at Sema4). Although I can’t say it was because of the color of my skin, I would notice that the promotion trajectory for, say, a white straight male was much faster than for a Black gay female, even when they had less experience.

    To increase diversity and inclusion in science, we need kids to see people that look and act like them in a leadership role. We have to show them that people in those ranks are who they want to be and not someone who is shying away from their blackness and doing their best to assimilate to please. And it doesn’t just stop with black skin and curly hair; we have people at Sema4 with pink and green hair. It breaks the mold of what kids think a scientist is. It shows that if they study hard, they won’t be held back by their physical attributes, background, disabilities, or anything else they previously viewed as limiting.

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    Do you want to join our team at Sema4? To find out more about open positions within the Sema4 lab and throughout the company, please check out our Careers page here.